Writing at the intersection of motherhood, feminism and my Latinidad

27 October 2009

Book Review: So Sexy So Soon by Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne


Britney. Bratz dolls. Thongs for girls. Those are the things we think about and blame for the sexualization of childhood. In So Sexy So Soon, Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne teach us about how commercialization and consumerism is quickly destroying childhood.

First of all, one might think this is a book for those of us with daughters. Nope! This is one is for parents, period. While there is a huge focus on the sexualization of girls, there is also great conversations about boys and how toys and media are screwing with their sexuality.

Levin & Kilbourne don't lecture parents. They are sympathetic to our situation, but they are stern in pushing us to assert our power as parents. It's not all about saying no in here, but they talk about how to say yes, how to talk with our kids about the decisions we make and how to make stores, marketers and product producers accountable.

Take child thongs for example. Look up blog posts about them and those who aren't outraged by them say things like, "If you don't like them, don't buy them for your kid." Well, it's not as simple as that. There is an excellent list of 12 reasons why it's not as simple as parents saying no. #10 sums it up: "It lets the media & marketing industries completely off the hook." So far, so good in my home, but saying it is all up to us as parents minimizes the huge market forces pounding on our children every single day. My daughter didn't see one scene from "High School Musical" or "Hannah Montana" before she was 4, but she knew who they were because kids in her preschool were bringing items plastered with them. And what kids see, kids want.

Honestly it's tiring saying no to everything, so many of us weigh things and say yes to things we think are the lesser of two evils. Levin & Kilbourne enlighten us to how even the lesser of the evils is setting up our children to end up right where we don't want them. There is an excellent discussion about princess culture and how that sets up girls to see beauty and their outward appearance as their source of validation and that sexiness is our goal. Princesses and "tame" teen shows teach girls and boys what it means to be sexy and they strive for that. What the media, schools and parents aren't teaching our kids is what sexy means and how it is different than sex. There's a sick logic to how we go from Bratz dolls for pre-tweens to seeing high school girls embrace Playboy as empowering. 

Levin & Kilbourne discuss how children's minds evolve and how to talk to them appropriately AND how to figure out how they jumped to a conclusion without going batshit. For me, this was one of the best parts of the book. Where do kids get such crazy ideas? Well they put it together from what they see, but how much logic goes into it depends on their age and development. Again, it is hard for an 8-year-old to understand the difference between wanting to have sex with someone and dressing up to be sexy. Media and as an extension, toys, are blurring that line that many of us wrestled with in high school.

As for boys...Even though I don't have a son, I have two nephews and a gaggle of boys to love from my godson's family. Levin & Kilbourne discuss how professional wrestling and hyper-masculine toys are screwing up how boys see sex and how that then screws up their ability to deal with the girls in their lives. We all know that adult images are just a few clicks away on the internet. This increase in the rise of sexual images in media coincides with the decline in real sex ed in the schools.

This book is far from anti-sex or prudish. Rather, Levin & Kilbourne are repeatedly talking about the need for sexuality education. Let's teach kids about not the how-to of sex, but the how-to-feel of sex. What does it mean to love someone? What does it mean to have sex with that person? How do you know when it's being done right? For over a decade, abstinence-only sex ed has been telling our kids to "Just say no" to sex, yet TV, movies, music, billboards and even their toys are telling them to be sexy. Talk about a tease! "But sex in commercial culture has far more to do with trivializing and objectifying sex than with promoting it, more to do with consuming than with connecting (p 9)."

Too often the answer to how to deal with the sexualization of childhood is to either stop showing anything with sex in it or to loosen up, they are just kids. Levin & Kilbourne find that uncomfortable middle that does put a lot of agency in parents, but they also arm us with a lot of helpful data and knowledge.

This is a must-read.

Please get yourself a copy thru an indie bookstore or Powells.com.

Disclaimer: I received this book directly from the publishers on my request over a year ago.

2 comments:

still trying to figure out your new layout, buuuuut i just wanted to share with you that miley cyrus was voted worst celeb influence on a tween website: http://www.jsyk.com/2009/10/28/the-good-the-bad-and-the-miley/

just some food for thought, though there's more to it than what meets the eye.

a more complete comment to come.

You make excellent points, particularly that of understanding the difference and connection between sex and being "sexy." In relation to this one thing the idea of acting upon these.

Recently, I visited a middle school for a class observation and found that there was a situation in which two boys touched a girl inappropriately (and made inappropriate comments towards her). Another classmate visited the same school the following week and the same situation took place. A couple of years ago I was a part of a peer mediation program at the same school. A 7th grade girl pushed a banana onto a 6th grade girl's private area as a cruel joke.

Kids at that age don't understand sex or sexuality, nor can we expect them to fully understand the implications of these. But actions such as the ones I mentioned earlier should not be happening at any age. As parents, educators, what have you, it is our responsibility to teach our children boundaries and the seriousness of that goes along with it. Not to sound prudish, but we have to think about where all this is coming from and how to counter or re-filter this "energy." It is also important to help our youth to think critically and with their decision making skills. A lot of the influence comes from the media (I cringe at Hannah Montana and HSM "gear" for our little ones). The media is telling our youth what is right and wrong, how they should think and what they should look like. We also have to be aware that a lot of it comes from the home, neighborhoods, etc., children have different experiences and act based upon what they see deemed to be acceptable.